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Essay: The death penalty: what is its place in our modern society?

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  • Subject area(s): Human rights essays
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  • Published: 24 September 2021*
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Identification of Issue and Justification

The use of the death penalty is embedded throughout history, but what is its place in our modern society? Despite the development of more liberal ideas, capital punishment, which is a direct violation of human rights, is still a feature of many justice systems around the world today.

After completing volunteer work for a public pressure group, named Amicus, providing representation for American citizens on death row, I was exposed to the severity of this issue. The death penalty deprives people of the most basic human right; the right to life. Therefore, it is not a question of whether or not we should defend the right to life but rather how we should defend it. Thus, I have decided to research the question; ‘Is it more effective to defend the right to life through the law or through public pressure groups?’

Amicus only works with prisoners on death row in the United States and so I have decided to concentrate the focus of this research question in that region. Therefore, I will be concentrating on American legislation when dealing with the issue of the law in comparison to public pressure groups.

When approaching this question, we must clarify the meaning of ‘public pressure groups.’ A widely accepted definition is ‘an organised group that does not put up candidates for election, but seeks to influence government policy or legislation.’ However, this definition does not specify exactly how the pressure groups persuade the government. This minor detail can determine whether a pressure group is successful or not. Some pressure groups believe that in order to achieve their goal, they must organise violent protests and rallies. Others take a more peaceful approach, such as writing letters to members of parliament or running non-violent campaigns. Amicus is best described as the latter, as they use the law itself to fight for people on death row.

Explanation of Engagement

In order to accurately investigate this question, I attempted to find non-biased information regarding this issue by organising engagement activates that exposed me to all opinions.

Firstly, I created an information leaflet entitled ‘Defending Human Rights.’ In this, I addressed the background information regarding the right to life and the history of the changing legislation. I learnt that the disasters of the First World War were crucial in spreading the importance of human rights, resulting in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Consequently, I could fully comprehend the context of human rights and explore the varying information regarding it.

Secondly, I interviewed an employee at Amicus through email correspondence. This enabled me to recognise the issue from their point of view and understand exactly what pressure groups do in order to defend human rights. I learnt that their most effective asset, in comparison with the government, is that they are not at risk of bias from prosecutorial targets.

Finally, I organised a discussion group with representatives of different ages and backgrounds in order to obtain a wider perspective on this issue. I gathered a range of students from my school on Wednesday 23rd June 2018 and posed questions involving the death penalty and human rights. I learnt that most people advocated for the combination of the law and public pressure groups to defend the right to life.

Analysis and evaluation

The right to life is not just a right; it is a moral principle that safeguards the preservation of human life. Governments are commonly attributed to being the main threat to the right to life , due to their use of the death penalty.

When addressing a question regarding the right to life, it is inevitable that the more general issue of human rights will arise. As aforementioned, the UDHR has played a pivotal role in attitudes towards human rights. However, this has not all been positive. When producing the leaflet, I was exposed to the issue of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism states that some practices are ‘exempt from legitimate criticism from outsiders.’ The UDHR includes an article that forbids torture. However, female genital mutilation is considered by some as a form of torture and others as a cultural practice. Thus, the UDHR can be seen as forcing Western ideas onto the rest of the world. Conversely, it is seen as setting out broad principles and simply offering guidelines. Therefore, I was exposed to the global perspectives regarding the defence of human rights.

The history of global legislation regarding the death penalty should be considered as it symbolises the change in perspective and shows how the law can defend the right to life. In the interview, I was told that in 1994, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommend that a further protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights should be established that the willingness to ratify this would be made a prerequisite for membership of the Council. This would provide for the complete abolition of the death penalty
However, this recommendation was never made official, perhaps due to cultural relativism. The fact that some US states use the death penalty does not automatically mean that they are against human rights, but rather that the social history around the death penalty is unchangeable.

The Amicus interviewee explained to me the exact work of public pressure groups. Margot Ravenscroft, the Director of Amicus, does a number of jobs that contribute to the defence of the right to life including finding cases to work on, procuring pro bono legal teams at large law firms and securing funding. Thus, the amount of effort the pressure groups put into the issue they are fighting for is evident. This was one of the points raised in the discussion groups; that public pressure groups solely work towards defending the right to life whereas governments have numerous matters to work on meaning they cannot concentrate on their legislation for one specific issue. Furthermore, Amicus’ work can constitute as pro bono work for law firms. This means that they can combine the passion and time of the Amicus employees with the knowledge and expertise of established lawyers. The employees in the government responsible for the legislation on the right to life may have the same level of knowledge and expertise as the lawyers, but lack drive and incentive for the issue in case. Additionally, the government wants to make the most out of its money and so will employ the same minister to handle a range of issues, meaning less time is spent on the very specific issue of the right to life. Thus, it is possible to argue that public pressure groups are in fact more effective in defending the right to life.

Democracy is important to consider because it has differing roles in public pressure groups compared to the law and can either inhibit or promote effectiveness. In the discussion group, I found that many people were interested in the level of democracy in both options. It was generally agreed that pressure groups are less democratic than the law. On the surface, they seem extremely raw and succinct, focusing on one issue and articulating the will of the people. However, they can also be linked to very corrupt ideas. For example, the leader of the pressure group is not elected and is often the creator of the group, meaning they have unlimited power. This lack of internal democracy coupled with the very nature of public pressure groups (labelled pressure for a reason) results in members of the public being forced into a particular school of thought. This is highly undemocratic and undervalues the power of one’s intuition. Thus, many people will argue that the law is much more effective due to its democratic nature.

There are numerous legalities that come with making a law and it is an extremely thorough process. However, I believe that it is only in the case of developed countries, such as the US, that the law is more democratic than public pressure groups. There are countries in which the head of state is the primary, and sometimes only, creator of laws and the process is extremely undemocratic. Although this research question focuses specifically on the treatment of the right to life in the US, it is impossible to ignore the global perspective on this issue. Thus emerges the question of whether it is more effective to defend the right to life through the law or through public pressure groups in a specific country. Even within the US, there is great discrepancy as states like Texas executed 13 men in 2018 whilst Michigan abolished capital punishment in 1846. Thus, there is a higher level of democracy within legislation than in obdurate public pressure groups, showing that the former are debatably more effective in defending the right to life but definitely more powerful.

Another idea I came across in the interview was that defending human rights can actually be through both the law and public pressure groups. Amicus argues that it was the law, that put people on death row, and thus we must use it to show that they should not be executed. Individuals on death row are where they are due to the fact that people working within the law argued that the crimes they have committed are such that the only way of punishment is the elimination of their right to life. Therefore, Amicus uses the appeals process in the US and the bans on executions put in place by the Supreme Court over the years, to prove that there is no crime severe enough to justify the abuse of the right to life. If someone who had legitimate grounds not to be executed, such as being too young or having an intellectual disability according to current law, has their sentence altered and is spared death, it is regarded as stronger and more effective than a public campaign. A successful case shows people that this is a cause worth fighting for, and that there are many more people that need this help. Therefore, from this we can see the benefits of using both the law and public pressure groups. The law is generally more highly regarded than the work of pressure groups due to its undisputed legitimacy; but pressure groups are certainly not redundant. It may not be possible to convince Governors to completely abolish capital punishment, however by combining the two strengths of the law and public pressure groups, we can defend the right to life quicker, on a greater scale and more effectively.

Conclusion

To conclude, my engagement activities were crucial in allowing me to make an informed answer to this research question. Through my Amicus interview and the discussion group, I found out that public pressure groups are advantaged in that their existence is solely based on one particular issue and, in this case, can spend all their efforts in defending the right to life. Yet, by making the leaflet, I saw that although the law has a much more complicated agenda, it is able to access the resources needed in order to make a change.

Therefore, the most effective way of defending human rights is through the combination of the legislation and the work of public pressure groups. It is wrong to say that one works completely independent of the other, and it is possible that the defence of the right to life can have more success if these two unify. By combining the power of legislation with the passion of public pressure groups, it may be possible to abolish the death penalty across the globe.

17.2.2019

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